Sense of Smell Predicts Size of Social Network

What’s that smell? That’s the smell of your social network.

A study just published ended up with some results that will make you stop and think – or at the very least, stop and sniff. It turns out your sense of smell may predict the size of your social network. In particular, people who are more sensitive to smells seem to have larger social networks on average.

The authors of the study aren’t exactly sure what the cause and effect here is, but one possibility is that people who can pick up on more subtle smells are better at smelling other people’s emotions.

That might sound a little far-fetched, but it’s been shown repeatedly that people can communicate via smell. For example, previous research has shown that people can smell anxiety, disgust and aggression in each other’s sweat.

Sense of smell has also been tied to social functioning in several ways, which is what clued the researchers into the idea of looking for a correlation between sense of smell and social network size.

Contrary to what researchers expected when they first tested it in 1970, extraverts have been shown to have a better sense of smell overall than introverts. On the other hand, people born without a sense of smell tend to be more socially insecure, and children with autism appear to be less sensitive to smells on average.

More research will have to be done to sniff out exactly what’s going on here, but the study did find one more lead that might be promising: both people’s olfactory sensitivity and their social network size were correlated with how connected two brain regions were (the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex).

Regardless, what we can conclude is that while it doesn’t have the cachet of vision and hearing, smell might still play an important role in our lives – and in our social lives especially.

What d’you think about this scent-sational research? What does your social network smell like? Please share in the comments.



  1. Abhishek on April 27, 2016 at 3:46 am

    What about animals?
    And is it also possible that a person unable to smell own bad odour could be insensitive to other people’s emotions?

    • Neil Petersen on April 28, 2016 at 8:00 pm

      When I was researching this I came across some studies suggesting that other primates also communicate emotions using smell. Beyond that, I’m not sure — it’s an interesting question!

      It’s a statistical correlation, so it’s still possible that someone with a bad sense of smell can be highly attuned to other people’s emotions. My guess would be that as far as being able to smell your own BO, there are a few factors: 1) people less sensitive to smells would probably be less likely to pick up on their own bad smells, which relates to this study 2) there’s also the phenomenon where if you smell something for a prolonged period of time, you get used to it, which is different than what the study looks at.

      • Abhishek on April 29, 2016 at 11:09 am

        Thank you for the detailed reply.